Michael Jackson and the Endless Summer of Death


It is now axiomatic that Michael Jackson’s death allowed us to reclaim the King of Pop from Wacko Jacko; the Moonwalk Kid from the clutches of Elephant Man; Gary, Indiana, from the decommissioned Neverland Ranch. “The unfortunate blessing of his departure is that we can now all go back to loving him as we first found him, without shame, despair, or complication,” went the coda to Greg Tate’s Voice eulogy. So: “Which Michael do you want back?” Informal studies of passing vehicle traffic around Brooklyn and Manhattan from June 25 on pegged the answer to somewhere between Thriller and Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5; nobody seemed to take it much past Dangerous, and the consensus-preferred visual seemed to be the circa-1969, Ed Sullivan Show, “I Want You Back”–era Michael—as innocent as we could possibly get him. (This preference might account for Jackson’s surprisingly dismal 2009 Pazz & Jop performance—two sympathy votes each for Thriller, “Billie Jean,” and “This Is It,” though that last one was in fact an eligible 2009 single, give or take the 1983 Paul Anka co-write to which it bore an actionable resemblance.)

But of course it was the most recent possible vintage of MJ that sold records left and right in 2009, a fact his unreconstructed asshole of a father duly acknowledged in the months after his son’s passing. “He’s worth more dead than when he was alive,” the elder Jackson told Extra, before adding that all things being equal, he’d prefer it the other way around. Can’t fault Joe for his math: Domestically, Jackson sold 8.2 million records in 2009, nearly twice as much as his nearest competition. Factor in the rest of the world, and that number jumps to 29 million. Jackson’s 2003 greatest-hits bow, Number Ones, was the year’s third-best-selling album in America, behind next-gen heavyweight Taylor Swift’s Fearless and, in second place, the 48-year-old British viral-video phenom Susan Boyle’s I Dreamed a Dream. At the multiplex, This Is It, the rehearsal-doc-cum-performance-flick rushed into theaters in October, was immediately certified—at a pre-DVD gross of a quarter of a billion dollars plus—as the bestselling concert film of all time.

Similarly, it was not the Jackson of 1969 or 1982 that drew an audience of as many as a billion people across the world to watch with bated breath as the King of Pop’s 50-year-old corpse was transported across a series of eerily empty L.A. freeways to the Staples Center, where he was then sent off into the beyond by Stevie Wonder, Berry Gordy, Mariah Carey, John Mayer, and the rascally Britain’s Got Talent contestant Shaheen Jafargholi. MSN’s online viewership for their live broadcast of the funeral topped by 50 percent the crowd they hosted for Obama’s inauguration, while CNN said that the 81 million page views and 9.7 million live video streams they received on that July 7 made for the site’s second-biggest day, ever.

Such numbers suggest we were mourning more than just Michael. The deluge of grief around Jackson’s death masked a host of unpleasant realities for the greater listening public, to say nothing of those facing the music critics tasked with making sense of a world without Mike in it. The staff at the Quincy Jones–co-founded Vibe was in the middle of scraping together a King of Pop memorial package five days after Jackson’s death when they were called into a conference room and told the magazine would be folding, effective immediately. (It has since been resurrected, though in what way remains to be seen.) Those hoping for a Jackson eulogy that might’ve strayed from the default Rolling Stone–type party line did not get it—Blender, the music mag that specialized in that kind of thing, had folded back in March. At the Voice, we retyped and reprinted online a dozen articles on Jackson from our archives, most of which had first sprawled across a kind of print real estate that, in 2009, was unfathomably vast to the 21-year-old interns we tasked with digitizing essays by Vince Aletti, Guy Trebay, Chuck Eddy, Robert Christgau, Stanley Crouch, Tate, et al.

Which is to say the work has changed. The TMZ-led, wall-to-wall coverage of Jackson’s last hours proved to be an augur of what, by August, was being dubbed the “Summer of Death”—a phenomenon abetted if not entirely created by the ascendance of Twitter, where user avatars tinted green in solidarity with Iran’s dissenters solemnly announced the passing of everyone from David Carradine to DJ AM to Gidget the Chihuahua. Anyone who blogged for a living in 2009 got used to writing eulogies on a nearly weekly basis, as both the favored information-delivery systems and page-view incentives bent inexorably toward the dead. Ellie Greenwich. Vic Chesnutt. Jack Rose. Chris Feinstein. Jerry Fuchs. Suzanne Fiol. Mary Travers. Dickie Peterson. Mr. Magic. Beau Velasco. Roc Raida. Rashied Ali. Les Paul. John Hughes. Titus Glover. Steven Wells. Koko Taylor. Jay Bennett. Lux Interior. Randy Bewley. Ron Asheton. And Jim Carroll, whose “People Who Died” began playing in my head sometime in July, months before my father mailed me Carroll’s Times obituary and asked, “Two years ahead of me at Trinity, the quarterback of our football team (Gil Scott-Heron was the quarterback for our opponents at Fieldston). Does he make it to the Voice website?” He did, of course. As always, Michael Jackson was at the vanguard, providing the ur-death that gave a grim year its unifying theme.

So what exactly were we mourning? Even as Jackson’s tawdry finale allowed us to remember him as he once was, his death allowed music fans and critics to remember our best selves as well. In the tiny corner of the universe that makes up the Pazz & Jop voting public, Jackson again gave critics a figure who transcended blog posts, capsule reviews, 140-character one-liners, and the rest of the threadbare patchwork that made up the daily hustle of music writers at the end of the last decade. Anyone part of the scramble to put together a farewell worthy of the Man in the Mirror—even all the magazine writers who lost their weekends to dude’s late-Thursday exit—can now look back on that frantic moment as a paradoxically bright spot in a year that was conspicuously lacking in good news or good work for an increasingly embattled profession. More importantly, the outpouring of sentiment and 29 million albums’ worth of consumer spending let listeners experience the type of worldwide communal cultural experience typically assumed to have gone the way of the RIAA’s diamond certification. Whether in Nepal, Melbourne, Nigeria, Stockholm, Los Angeles, New York, or Mars, the King of Pop was dead. But at least we were all listening to Michael Jackson again.

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